Monday, October 16, 2006

Wither [Sic] The Fan?

Has the post-season in baseball become as irrelevant as the All-Star Game to most fans?

Booming regular season attendance, obscene television revenues and the advent of the World Baseball Classic notwithstanding, fewer people than ever are watching the baseball playoffs. There is little reason to believe those same people will suddenly find religion when the World Series gets underway.

Numerous factors have contributed to this collective big yawn. A longer regular season started the trend as baseball encroached further on territory usually reserved for Fall and Winter sports. For the history buffs out there, the key dates in this discussion are 1958 and 1961. In the former, the Baltimore Colts met the New York Giants in the dramatic sudden-death NFL title game credited with establishing football as the predominant game on the American sporting landscape. Three years later, baseball expanded its regular season from 154 to 162 games and introduced the asterisk as the single most important punctuation mark in its history.

The subsequent advent of the Wild Card and longer playoff series further contributed to the erosion of late-season baseball tolerance. Expansion of the football season to 16 games and the concomitant earlier start to its season and pre-season and the expansion of professional basketball and hockey also cut into baseball’s hegemony. Add in the earlier start to and expansion of the college football season and you have a lot of competition for the average sports fan’s attention at the juncture when baseball is just gearing up for its showcases: the playoffs and post-season.

Few if any other moves have eroded interest in October baseball more than the introduction of interleague play. If nothing else, the curiosity factor about the “other” league was erased when teams from the NL and AL routinely met during the regular season. Few interleague rivalries generate considerable fan interest and local bragging rights (Yankees vs. Mets, Cubs vs. White Sox are exceptions) and most are no more interesting than your regularly scheduled programming. Saturday afternoon, Monday and Thursday night national broadcasts combined with the availability of all games on and satellite and the full 162 game presentation by most local stations also means over-exposure. All baseball all the time is, frankly, a whole lot more than all football all the time when you have 30 teams playing 162 games each as opposed to 30 teams playing 16 games each.

The All-Star game used to be the one moment in the middle of the summer when fans could watch the great players from the “other” league go head-to-head. The actual game has been watered down by the pre-game festivities including the home run contest, broadcast in prime time the night before, which probably draws more viewers than the game itself. The All-Star break used to be a three-day interlude, two for travel and one for the contest. Now, it is crammed with pre-game hype and hoopla and doesn’t feel like a break at all. Free agency has also contributed to the watering down of the product considering how many stars change leagues as well as teams multiple times throughout their careers. For better or worse, in the old days Ted Williams and Willie Mays were always going to represent the American and National Leagues respectively and the All-Star game was going to be a real dogfight for bragging rights. Bud Selig has tried to rejuvenate the contest by awarding home field advantage for the World Series to the winning league, a terrible idea that penalizes the visiting team in the Series for the sins of their league.

Baseball executives would be loath to admit it except in private, but most of them would prefer to see teams from the big television markets meeting in the playoffs. Their worst nightmare would be to have teams from the smaller markets meeting throughout the month of October. An early exit by either New York team is considered a disaster; a World Series between, say, the Florida Marlins and Cleveland Indians would be an even bigger one.

The rejuvenation of a Kenny Rogers, emergence of Jose Reyes, and continued brilliance of Albert Pujols is not enough to draw fans back to their television sets for any protracted length of time. And as noted in an earlier post, neither are the exhortations of Tommy LaSorda in some pretty clever ads aimed directly at those deserters. A lot of true fans of the game are staying away in droves and baseball’s alleged brain trust seems clueless how to bring them back. It could get a lot worse before it gets better. Conceivably, it might never get better.


Corey & Carson said...

The playoffs might need a jolt of life. I'm not sure how to go about doing this, but the evidence is obvious...people just don't care as much. I love the playoffs, and I watch. But I LOVE baseball. I'm not the typical person.

Tom Goodman said...

As I was writing the conclusion to this post I wondered what might have happened had the Phillies in general and Ryan Howard in particular made it to the post-season and gone deep into it. No single player captured the nation's attention as much as he did during the final month and a half of the season. His name was on everyone's lips. Much of it had to to with his home run chase and that would have been a moot point by the playoffs, but it has been a long time, since Barry Bonds' home run chase, that a single baseball player has remained in the spotlight for so long. (And it is for that reason, among many, he is the NL if not MLB MVP.

RickSchuBlues said...

MLB will never figure it out. They just keep piling on more, more, more. World Baseball Classic, Division Series, expansion teams. More is *less*. Football is more popular in large part because it's such a novelty - once a week, no 'series', regular season or playoff. There's far more buildup and anticipation. The World Series is always anticlimactic after the September pennant races and *six* playoff series leading up to it. It's no big deal to miss a playoff game, becuase there's always one the next day.

Baseball is going to have a big problem on its hands with many more dramaless postseasons like this one - it's remarkable to me that it's taken ten years for the new playoff system to wear thin. I'll admit the wild card has increased interest significantly around baseball, but its eventual consequence, the Division Series, is what's choking the life out of October.

My solution would start with cutting a week out of spring training (talk about excessive) and a week out of the regular season, and have a week in between the end of the season and the playoffs, so that they feel more distinct. Getting rid of that third round of playoffs is even more essential, however, and I don't know of a fair way around it based on the way things are set up now.

bballmaster said...

I think that baseball should scrap spring training all together. Football has a preaseason of only 4 games. Baseball's preaseason could become all by itself. I watch the playoffs religously but without change by commish cough cough will contiue to face dwindling television ratings.

George S said...

One question I find interesting is this: Does/did MLB consider the impact of various teams winning the WS when they consider them for being granted franchises in the first place?

It would seem to be common sense when looking at expansion that you would ask yourself two fundamental questions as it pertains to the overall health of the sport.

1) Is this or can this become a baseball town?
2) If this team makes it to the WS, is that a good thing for baseball?

Now you look at teams like the Rockies. Does any ML owner want the Rockies in the WS other than the Rockies' owner? Is Denver a baseball town? In October? How many Rockies' fans are there outside of Colorado?

You can ask similar questions about other places like Montreal (now gone), Milwaukee, Tampa Bay, perhaps even Toronto or Seattle.

Why bring them into the league if their success could hurt your sport?

Some will say that Montreal or Denver were great AAA minor league towns, with a long tradition, but that was based on those fans' connection with a major league team, not standing alone.

So I do have to laugh a little when I see comments in the media and elsewhere about the 'nightmare' scenario of a Milwaukee-Seattle WS. If you can't prosper with them as champions, you better re-think how your entire league is structured.

Tom Goodman said...

Baseball is not alone in carrying franchises that are perennial also-rans or worse but because of the way it is structured (luxury taxes, revenue sharing, tv contracts, free agency and compensation, its draft) baseball does have more underperforming franchises than, say, football.

There are simply too many games played as everyone has pointed out. The problem with shortening Spring Training is that the weather is too iffy in too many parts of the country in April to begin the season earlier and thus end it a week earlier. The thing I find most amusing about Spring Training is how little actual playing time a lot of veterans get. ST seems to be for rookies and fringe players more than veterans.

My solutions would be these:

1. Cut the season back to 154 games.
2. Eliminate the HR derby from the AS game and make the game the only feature of the event. Stop this nonsense about WS home field advantage to the winning league.
3. Eliminate interleague play.
4. Make the WC a best of three series. In reality, I'd like to eliminate the WC altogether but that is never going to happen.
5. Give home field advantage in the playoffs to teams with best winning %.
6. Make the second round of the playoffs a best of 5 series.
7. Make the league championship series a best of 5, too.
8. WS remains best of 7

RickSchuBlues said...

I was also tempted to suggest the playoff structure you proposed, with series of 3 and 5 to precede the best-of-7 World Series; the only problem with that is baseball would be exceedingly unlikely to have its best teams in the World Series, and that would render the long, long season a bit more meaningless if a team that's in first place for six months can be eliminated by losing *two* games in the first round. It's bad enough that all they have to do is lose three now. Again, there's no way around it: the wild-card adds excitement to the regular season, but it cheapens the playoffs. But unless baseball contracts its franchises - an unforseeable possibility - the wild-card is pretty much a necessary evil.

Tom Goodman said...

It should be obvious by now I am not the most informed stats guy, so that said I wonder (out loud) just how often the "best" teams from each league do make it to the WS?

It may be hard to plan to insure they do. Just as guys like Scott Spezio invariably show up in October, so, too, do entire teams. Were the Marlins better than the Yankees in 2003? Were the Mets better than the Orioles in 1969? (Still can't let that one go.) Were the Pirates better than the Orioles in 1971? Now that one is just as big a sore point. Yes, Clemente was all-world, but the Orioles really lost because guys like Steve Blass had great series and couldn't find the strike zone a year or so later and were out of baseball. Then there was Bucco's first baseman Bob Robertson who did his best Lou Gehrig impersonation that series. Otherwise, he was strictly second rate.

Oh, the pain.